Last weekend's EU summit in Helsinki decided to extend the circle of countries engaged in accession negotiations from six to 12. The summit also approved plans for an intergovernmental conference (IGC) on internal reforms necessary for enlargement, and fixed a timetable for the conclusion of the IGC. Despite what appears to be a large step forward for enlargement, some warn the road could still be long for the EU and for candidate states alike. Ahto Lobjakas of RFE/RL's Estonian Service was at the summit and files this report.
Helsinki, 15 December 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The enlargement of the European Union into Central and Eastern Europe is a process which has so far largely been driven by political considerations. In 1997, the post-Cold War euphoria and the responsibility felt in the West for the political and economic progress of the former communist states were strong enough so that invitations to accession talks were extended to the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Poland and Slovenia, as well as Cyprus.
Later, enthusiasm within the EU for expansion clearly waned as the focus shifted more to the reforms that would first be needed within the Union itself.
But the summit last weekend in Helsinki saw another turn, with new evidence of a renewed enthusiasm, with invitations to begin accession talks going to Bulgaria, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia and Malta.
The President of the European Commission, Romano Prodi, told reporters in Helsinki that this year's events in Kosovo played a large role in the timing of the new invitations.
"I have to be frank: I think the Kosovo war speeded up the process. Because it is clear now that without this enlarged, new, friendly Europe we should have a lot of these problems."
Along with the invitations, the EU also set a clear timetable for internal Union reforms to be reached by the end of 2002. Some candidate states immediately seized on that to mean they could hope to attain membership in 2003. But EU officials made clear that membership for new states -- which each existing member nation must ratify -- would take a year. That means new members would not be brought into the EU until 2004 at the earliest.
Regardless of the apparent progress made, many skeptics point out that fundamental problems remain before enlargement can proceed. They note that the internal reforms proposed are not nearly enough for a union of 27 members and that considerations to do with "Realpolitik" will no doubt thwart the hopes of many front-runners for early accession. Skeptics also say current EU members have not recognized the fundamental way in which the Union will have to change if enlargement is to proceed on the scale outlined in Helsinki.
One of the most vocal skeptics in recent months has been Quentin Peel, a foreign affairs expert with the Financial Times in London. Speaking to RFE/RL in Helsinki, said instructions given to the IGC to reform the EU's decision-making structures did not go far enough.
"If you only reform your voting weights, a very difficult thing to do at the best of times, the number of commissioners you have, and just a little bit of essentially what they call mathematical reforms, this simply won't be enough for a community anything like as big as 27."
Peel thinks the reforms currently being suggested may be sufficient for an EU of 20 members, but not more.
Behind the scenes, a number of representatives from countries who have already begun accession talks voiced similar worries. Their concerns go further, though, bordering occasionally on the suspicion that the EU is neither ready nor in any hurry to enlarge.
A sign of the latter seems evident in the views voiced by the European Commission's enlargement commissioner Guenter Verheugen and others in Helsinki, according to whom the IGC negotiations must finish before any accession treaties can be signed and ratified. This effectively means that no new countries can join the EU before the year 2004. All first wave entrants, however, target the year 2003. The process and timing set by the EU for internal reforms has led some to speculate that the EU is trying to stall.
The Financial Times' Peel thinks this is precisely what the European Union should do. He points to the growing unease in a number of member countries, where questions are raised as to whether 10 years or so is enough for candidate countries to come into compliance with the so-called Copenhagen criteria. These specify the need for a functioning market economy and democracy before accession. And it is far from sure, says Peel, that the reforms in most aspirant countries are irreversible.
Peel also feels last weekend's decisions at the Helsinki summit paid very little heed to certain political realities, thus kindling empty hopes in most candidate countries. He thinks that even 2004 might prove too early a target, as any first wave of enlargement cannot proceed without Poland.
"I don't think there will be any enthusiasm within the European Union to have a first round of enlargement without Poland. Politically, Poland is the most important. So I fear that the first round won't happen until Poland is ready."
Peel says it seems highly unlikely that the complex questions which the entry of a country the size of Poland inevitably raises, especially given the role agriculture plays in its economy, can be resolved in a few years.
Peel argues that the decisions the EU made in Helsinki serve in many ways to highlight the embryonic nature of the debate concerning enlargement. He considers it obvious that enlargement on the scale proposed at the summit cannot be achieved by any reforms in sight now. He says far deeper choices need to be made, as pooling the sovereignty of 27 or even 28 countries will not be easy and presupposes very radical changes.
"One wonders a little bit whether in fact the enlargement process -- politically an enormously important process -- is not actually going to mean the end of the European Union as we know it. It will have to be a different sort of Union and that Union may be a lot less integrated than it is today."
The answer may lie, as Peel has written, in a "multi-speed Europe". He and others argue enlargement and the underlying principles of the present EU can only be reconciled if the EU allows members to reach different levels of integration. He argues those members willing and able to go ahead with closer integration in specific areas must be free to do so without being held back by other members.
These sorts of ideas could even be applicable to the present EU, where the preferences of its 15 nations are increasingly hard to reconcile. They may, however, turn out to be the candidate states' worst nightmare, where the threshold for a complete integration into the West sought by most of them remains an ever-retreating mirage.